Here’s a question: How much is too much when “tweaking” a classic to give it a new spin?
Quite a number of years ago I bought tickets to a production of one of Shakespeare’s popular comedies. The show had been touted for its all-male cast. Naturally enough I thought it would be a highly traditional, even close to authentic staging, given that female roles in Shakespeare’s time were played by males.
Alas, traditional was it not. The acting might have been good, even excellent. But it was wholly obscured by staging that used metal and transparent plastic sets, and the voices of the actors could scarcely be heard over the din of atonal jazz. These elements, designed no doubt to refresh the classic play, instead rendered it obscure and frankly unbearable.
This past week I attended two productions of classic works at Indiana University. The first was put on by the Theater Department, a rendering of Shakespeare’s As You Like It; the second by the Opera Theater, a new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).
As You Like It was rather delightfully “tweaked,” with casting adaptations that one-upped even Shakespeare’s penchant for gender-bending. But somehow setting the frolicking finale to the Beatles’ classic version of “Twist and Shout” jarred. It was rather like seeing one too many pies in the face — farce ad infinitum. Plus, the speech that followed it was anticlimactic and, while standard, was all the more incongruous after everyone had been twisting and shouting.
If anything, Die Zauberflöte was even zanier: Mozart meets the Muppets. Mozart himself put in a few appearances, red frock coat, powdered wig, and all. Sometimes he materialized in Disneyesque boxes that opened in the scenery. Opera goers of a certain age must have been reminded of the TV show Laugh In or perhaps Hollywood Squares.
Mozart’s opera is juvenile and funny as it is, but apparently for modern audiences the childishness must be more blatant, with puppets reminiscent of Broadway’s The Lion King and an enormous dragon right out of a Chinatown parade. Still, the Queen of the Night’s aria resonated, and Papageno was brightly acted and sung in spite of the enormous puppet birds with their black-clad animators cluttering up the stage.
So, how much is too much? One viewer’s happy innovation well met is another’s over-the-top flop. There are times when I would like to see a play played straight. Fortunately that happens often enough that I can appreciate when Shakespeare’s, Mozart’s, or some other classic writer’s or composer’s work is “tweaked” — even when the tweaking overreaches at times.